Robert Wright devotes a Martin Center column to higher education in a post-COVID-19 world.

The coronavirus, combined with the public and private reactions to it, has affected every aspect of Americans’ lives, including the ways they learn. From pre-K to graduate seminars, many classes are moving online for the duration of the pandemic and perhaps beyond. That may spur pedagogical reforms that will lead to the creation of more Emersonian independent thinkers, people who can quickly find, analyze, and synthesize available data to come to reasoned conclusions on important matters—a resource that seemed in mighty short supply when the coronavirus hit the proverbial fan in mid-March.

Many colleges and universities will evidently have to tighten their belts for some time. Counterintuitively, it would be the lack of resources rather than a surfeit of them that could spur positive change among our very costly but not very effective schools.

Business, education, and policy leaders tend to think in terms of inputs. Achieving goal X will require inputs that cost at least a certain amount. That common approach, which often spends more than anticipated for something less than the stated goal, will be forestalled for the foreseeable future. Budgets will be tight at public and private schools (the former due to state government budget cuts and the latter due to endowment and donation losses because of the stock market crash). Planned educational “essentials” like rock climbing walls, expanded sports stadiums, and new buildings for administrators will have to be put on hold and possibly canceled altogether.

If, as seems likely, a recession or depression hits, student applications may well increase. They have in previous downturns because people who are out of work have a lower opportunity cost of time. But schools shouldn’t count on revenues increasing since many applicants will need more financial aid than they previously would have. In addition, universities that are reliant on foreign students (who often pay full tuition) will be stressed due to travel restrictions and cautious parents keeping their children closer to home.